Sourcing Hebrews and the "Pauline" Canon

So I ran into an obstacle reading Barth. I can deal with him readily enough from the gospels and the Pauline letters from my own work, but when he goes to Hebrews, I'm woefully illiterate. Fortunately, this is a reparable defect! So I'm translating Hebrews, and updating my methodology as I go. You see, each time I do this whole-book-translation thing, I get better at some aspects of it.

With Galatians, I made a start on text critical issues, and began to learn rhetoric. When I set out to tackle Justin, my grasp of grammar and syntax grew by leaps and bounds. With Romans, I did a ton of work on Paul's situation, and brought along solid linguistics and rhetorical analysis. In learning Romans, I finally had enough tools to get a hold of oral performance criticism, which complemented the socio-rhetorical work. All that was dragged into an analysis of the text, its language, its development, and its performative aspects as diatribe.

Now I'm diving into Hebrews, which deserves all that treatment in spades. Its Greek is very high, very well-composed, and very oral. While we still think of Paul's addresses as correspondence, by and large we acknowledge Hebrews as a "sermon". But I'm lacking the lower text-critical chops to match. Manuscript issues weren't my forte. I took the Alands' word for Galatians; while I played groups of manuscripts against one another, I did it on their terms. In dealing with Romans, I began to have "favorite" manuscripts that seemed more trustworthy than others, but even that was built out of the basic search for an "Alexandrian" ideal text. Largely literary criteria, with preferences based on a set of global assumptions about probability in scribal habits. This isn't enough, and I'm no longer convinced that the Alands' have the right approach. Don't get me wrong, I'm not jumping ship to the Byzantine Authority school—the question is still what the best critical approach is.

When the question is what the text that would have been performed looked (and sounded) like, as persuasive rhetoric, it's a whole new ballgame as far as criteria of authenticity. I don't get to say things like "the shortest reading" or "the more difficult reading" is preferable. The question becomes more aesthetic. Which is dangerous, because a major category of scribal "error" is correction of the original to make more sense or to look better. "Correction" of the manuscript based on preconceptions is only as good as the correspondence between those preconceptions and the (now unavailable) original or exemplar. An while I'm on scribal errors, I don't get to say "Oh, scribes more often did this," when I look paleographically at this manuscript and its scribal hands as people with their own unique habits. I have to figure out what this scribe did, what his habits were correlated to possible/plausible patterns in the exemplar, who his corrector was and when, whether the correction was to the exemplar or to some other text or to no text at all ... as in so many fields, general probability has no bearing on actual individual behavior—just on how much proof you need to support hypotheses.

But worst of all, when I know I'm looking for a Judean original text, I don't get to sit comfortably with a later Christian manuscript tradition and its already-fixed Pauline canon. Which is terribly dangerous, because I risk making a priority out of an external, ideal text by speculating outside of the texts we have. We know there were texts there, we call them exemplars, and the manuscripts we have point to them, because they are all copies. What has to be done is something more accurately Derridean in this concern: to deal with the internal, real hors-textes—the marginalia, the emendations, the phenomena that make the real manuscript something more than the bare text of our primary interest—as equal parts of the text itself. The manuscript is the text, or at least each manuscript is a text. And if they are texts that are in fact traces, they still don't point in the same directions. The thing I want, the manuscript history for this singular text in isolation, has been effaced from history by time. The closest I can get is a diversity of opinions about the text of the "Pauline" canon of 14 letters, with fragmentary glimpses that may in fact stand behind it, but might just as likely be free textual variation with no direct relationship to the origin.

But we do physics with exactly such a limitation every day. The key is to know what you cannot see, to describe that problem space, and to push the evidentiary boundary as close to those limits as possible. Because the job goes on! We speculate beyond the evidentiary boundary, and occasionally we come up with theories that are good enough that they let us slip it to push toward relevant other things we can know about the problem. Knowing the shape of the hole is the beginning of knowing what could fit that hole, which is the beginning of the development of tools to see inside of it.

So: the shape of the hole. For Hebrews, that's an interesting question, what with its inclusion in the Pauline canon as circulated and copied. Although it isn't always and everywhere included in that canon! But the canon of 14 is a set, and while I knew that, I wasn't fully conscious of what it tells us, and what we can't find out. For Hebrews, there's some bonus to the fact that there are 13-letter collections, with Hebrews appended to them by the scribe—but then, there's no independent manuscripts of Hebrews that we know as such. No scrolls or quires that are just Hebrews beginning to end. Fragments can't tell us what they belonged to in terms of larger context. Which is disappointing, but then, there are also no independent manuscripts of any portion of the Pauline canon that we know as such. Just fragments from the second century or later.

As far as (reasonably) complete copies, P46 is the earliest. We're missing the first half of Romans and the matching leaves from the end of the quire, but that's deterioration and not scribal fault. And it has its own peculiarities, such as deviating from canon order. Apparently done by a professional scribe, to judge from the regularity of the hand—but one who hadn't done the Pauline canon before, or he'd have had a better idea of what it takes to fit the whole thing in a quire. Which raises its own questions about his exemplar ... or exempla. Canon order is reinforced by having and copying authoritative exempla that follow canon order. That way you know you've done it right, and you've produced a product that obeys the reader's expectation. And by and large the Pauline canon proceeds in order through the letters to communities, then Hebrews, and then the letters to individuals. (Except where Hebrews is stuck at the end, or appended following an obvious break.)

Now, P46 isn't a different set of writings, so it's obviously a copy of the Pauline canon (with the possible, hypothetical, exception of the Pastorals if we assume that only 2 Thessalonians and Philemon would fit the remaining lost pages). However, it's been rearranged by length without categorizing first. Hebrews, third longest, follows after Romans so as not to separate the Corinthian letters. Which you'd do, if you wanted to make sure that you didn't break off in mid-letter when you ran out of paper at the end of the quire. The shorter letters are each easier to gauge and either fit or omit depending on how much space is left. So the scribe is apparently getting creative in making the manuscript—but from the text we can tell that it's just as apparently not a fancy manuscript for a wealthy private buyer, and from the material we can tell that it's not a large "church bible" size papyrus. There's attention to detail in the binding and the trimming of the pages, but the text is plain, on an average-sized sheet, and corrected in a hand and ink not too far from the original.

So what do we have in P46? It's obviously not an original; it's a copy of other manuscripts, themselves just as likely copies. It's a copy of manuscripts that were authoritative enough as texts, but it isn't a copy of the sequence we find in any other (later) copy of the collection of these letters. So at minimum it's not a thorough copy of one exemplar of the entire Pauline canon. (If we get really brave in our speculation about the material from the missing final leaves, we might speculate that it's a copy of an early exemplar in the formation of the Pauline canon, and further speculate that Hebrews entered the canon before the Pastorals, but that's still an argument from a hypothetical reconstruction of the nonexistent.)

In any event, it's a copy of canonical texts, copies of which were at minimum collected notionally, even if the scribe were dealing with separate exempla in assembling this manuscript. It may be a creative recompilation of a singular exemplar, which is plausible because having a copy of the whole thing in someone else's hand doesn't tell you how long it needs to be in your own hand. In this case, we'll assume the scribe is attempting to optimize his use of the papyrus he has. It might even, if we follow our crazy guess about being an earlier developmental stage, be a copy of a version of the Pauline canon that only survives in this single item. Then, the scribe isn't being too cheap with papyrus, and we guess that his tactic of tightening up his writing (more characters per line and more lines per page) as he proceeds is successful in fitting the rest of his exemplar into the remaining pages that we no longer have. But whatever it is because of its peculiarities, whether a fresh compilation, a recompilation, or a faithful copy of an otherwise missing text-form, it's the oldest surviving mostly-intact version to date.

How does that compare with the standard text basis for most critical editions? The practice of using the "big three" uncials—Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus—produces a basic text that belongs to the complete Christian canon of the fourth and fifth centuries. These texts have the Septuagint included, and certain works that were ultimately not part of the final canon but in common usage (Shepherd of Hermas, for example). As finished NT canons collecting the gospels, Pauline letters, Acts and the general epistles, and for two of them also Revelation, these three uncials cannot date earlier than the council of Nicaea. This doesn't mean that their texts are equally reliable for all four collections, but it does tell us something about the scribal processes that assembled and corrected the full texts. And, since they may have had full exempla, also about the compilation of that entire Greek canon.

What the "big three" don't provide is attestation for anything earlier. While it's perhaps naive to talk about uniformly preferring papyri to uncials, there is good sense in weighting P46 slightly more than these three, especially where fragmentary papyrus evidence supports it. What is much more naive is to talk about preferring uncials to minuscules. Paleography can tell us how old a copy is, and generally uncials are older than minuscules, but it can't tell us how old the exemplar was.

A slightly more relevant concern is the extent of the manuscript's contents. In the Alands' terms, "eapr" represents the whole NT canon (gospels, Acts and general epistles, Paulines, and Revelation). And "eap" is just as likely to be "complete," given the spotty inclusion of Revelation. And we have manuscripts that are just "ap" or "e" and so forth. Unfortunately, this doesn't give us everything we'd like either, because it doesn't correlate cleanly to date. While we know that these circulated separately before being collected together, there isn't a clear history after which we only have full-canon manuscripts. This still doesn't tell us how old the exemplar was.

So, for example, we can compare minuscule 33, once "the queen of the cursives," which is "eap," with minuscule 1739, a recent contender for the title, which is "ap" and was originally also "eap." Both copies date from around the same time, between the 9th and 11th centuries, but they have quite different exempla. 33 has its Acts and Pauline material organized according to the Euthalian apparatus, which means that the material in its presentation dates to no earlier than the 5th century, though it isn't necessarily that old. [Think about finding a Bible with Scofield's introduction and marginal notes, and what that tells you about how old it could be.] 1739, while it contains marginalia commentary from early Fathers including Origen, has a text which is by no means guaranteed to correspond to those Fathers. It was transcribed from a 4th century uncial text, of the same period as the "big three," and is recognized as potentially reproducing a much earlier text, with other manuscripts (both uncial and minuscule) derived from either it or its exemplar. These are both cases in which the present case of the text (minuscule) is obviously not original. In the case of 33, we can tell it's been through much more intensive work modifying the text itself; in the case of 1739, we can tell that it hasn't, based on its large family and preservation of unique readings. As "eap" sources, even though 1739 has lost its gospels and the beginning of Acts, these stand on par with the best of the "eap" uncial texts—and they date to around the 10th century! But what they each tell us is significantly different.

And, before I leave off this topic, I'm going to come back around to the Byzantine text: how do we best deal with the Koine "Majority Text"? NA27 uses an "M" sign to replace the previous edition's "K" to refer to the Koine tradition. It's a bigger set than it was. It also uses pc (pauci, "few") and al (alii, "some") to refer to dissenting voices among the Koine manuscripts. The trouble is that this is also typically understood as the Byzantine tradition. Which makes us tend to discount it entirely, because the mass production of officially authorized Byzantine texts of the canon doesn't tell us anything authentic about how those texts looked originally. In many cases, including the "big three," we see "corrections" that would make the much older manuscript correspond to the Byzantine text. In more cases, we simply see an otherwise unique text that suddenly agrees with the Byzantine text in places where its exemplar had been "corrected." The Nestle-Aland text avoids Byzantine readings like the plague.

And yet the SBL text, with some grounding in recent work done by its editor, Michael Holmes, takes a different approach. And I'm not taking the same approach, but having read Holmes, I've got my own opinions. So: remember that the "Majority Text" isn't a text at all; it's a collation of the bulk of the Koine tradition. Most of this tradition is Byzantine by sheer numbers, but not all. Now, there's always some theological mess regarding notions that "authorized" texts of any age are more correct, as though God were the authorizing authority, and all that gets bound up in some poorly-considered ideas of "divine preservation of scripture." Robinson-Pierpont is a great example of this problem, even though their text is a useful representation of the Byzantine/Majority text. So let's do away with the theology of the superiority of the "Majority Text" and pay attention to what the Koine tradition as a whole has to tell us. We know the Byzantine text is a) late, and b) significantly different from our earlier exempla. And because of preserved corrections in old manuscripts, we know basically how different. And yet the Koine tradition isn't all Byzantine copies. If we run into a pc or an al in the apparatus, what does that tell us? It tells us we have some number of Koine manuscripts that preserve a non-Byzantine text. This is useful data! If the majority is Byzantine, the dissenting voice has some probability of being earlier. This isn't by any means always true, but under the right conditions, it lends its own weight.

Ah, but what do we do with the univocity of the "Majority Text"? Do we call it strictly Byzantine? This is one of Holmes' questions. The idea is that if the Koine tradition can preserve earlier readings in addition to the Byzantine text, and if we don't write off the Byzantine text as having no basis in earlier texts, then we have to acknowledge that the Koine tradition, including the Byzantine text, may preserve original readings. Essentially, when the Koine tradition all lines up, it's possible that this is early material. I don't know how I feel about that; much depends on the other sources. But one of the things it does suggest, which I find quite useful, is that we don't need to follow the usual preference for the shortest reading of a text. Certainly the Byzantine text manifests itself in editorial additions to older texts, but this doesn't mean that longer readings are scribal addition across the board. We have to balance our consideration of scribal habits with the simple fact that we don't have any exemplars of the original texts. It gets hard to tell "assimilation" from original readings, and ruling out all potential assimilations doesn't necessarily get us a more original text.

So ... that still leaves me quite in the middle of the mess, but with perhaps more detail on the shape of the problem. What am I doing? The only answer to that question is, "the best I can."

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